Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality

Clay Shirky naturalises inequality by invoking statistical power laws.

Prior to recent theoretical work on social networks, the usual explanations [for inequality] invoked individual behaviors: some members of the community had sold out, the spirit of the early days was being diluted by the newcomers, et cetera. We now know that these explanations are wrong, or at least beside the point. What matters is this: Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality.

I [can] read this to mean that we can, and should, dismiss any evidence of social interaction that falls outside the parameters of power laws. To reduce sociality to numbers of connections or degrees of association, or even to individual psychological motivations, denies decades of anthropological and sociological research. Is it a question of evidence, of predictability? Surely the interpretive validity of ethnography has been established. How does Clay's approach explain, or account for, sociality that falls "outside" power laws? I don't think that's "beside the point." To me, what matters is this: quality of connection and substance of conversation.

For interesting commentary, go here and here.

UPDATE 11/02/03: This morning I am struck by the properties of academic language and the performance aspects of stating one's position - it can be so dramatic! I checked out the current course offerings in the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program - and it looks like they're teaching some really interesting stuff. Where I could find the reading lists, I see familiar sociology and anthropology. Sub-cultures and poetics are being examined alongside evolutionary and emergent networks. In my experience, social science departments can be crippled by divisions between qualitative and quantitative researchers, and I wonder what the political situation is like at NYU...

Continuing:

Dave Winer brings attention to something close to my heart - participation vs. observation. Ross Mayfield's comments on Distribution of Choice are also interesting.

Then there are these choice comments on Boys with Toys and the limits of certain measuring sticks - mucho gusto! And I think that Steve is one of the few people who actually *got* my original post - and he continues to take the heat for claiming that power is about socially-negotiated meaning, not numbers: As an example of what I'm talking about, take Clay's essay itself. He links to a post of mine, sending me the high amount of traffic I'm getting today. And yet, because his link defines my post as a 'lament' (inaccurately, to my mind), anyone who arrives via that link is already going to read it in a negative context. So the 'power' I might gain by having more readers is outweighed by the power he exerts (albeit unintentionally) by partially directing the way those readers read me. That's kind of power I'm concerned with in linking practices, not the unmediated numbers. Right on!

UPDATE 12/02/03: And, as always, Fabio with something damn thoughtful.

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